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Beginner’s Errors to Avoid

It takes an engineer to undertake the training of an engineer and not, as often happens, a
theoretical engineer who is clever on a blackboard with mathematical formulae but useless as
far as production is concerned.
The Rev E.B. Evans

Academic myopia
Many of the errors which follow are often hard-wired into academic design techni-
ques. In summary, best simply forget everything you were told in academia about pro-
cess design. Those who taught you have almost certainly never designed a unit
operation which has been built, let alone a whole plant.

Lack of consideration of needs of other disciplines

Real process plant designers have to take into consideration the needs and desires of
several other engineering disciplines, most notably civil, mechanical, electrical, and
software in that order. The idea that a chemical engineer can sit down and design a
plant in glorious isolation comes only from the inadequacy of links between disci-
plines and professional practice in academia.

Lack of consideration of natural stages of design

It is one thing to consciously accelerate a program by rolling a couple of stages of
design together. It is quite another to attempt to apply techniques intended for a par-
allel universe where these stages do not exist.

Excessive novelty
Academics progress in their careers by being radically innovative. Being novel is more
important than being right to researchers who wish to be published, and many teach
their students to value novelty too. Professional engineers are no more novel than
absolutely necessary. Being right is far more important to us than being original.

Lack of attention to detail

“Block flow diagrams” are commonplace in university, and process flow diagrams
(PFDs) are commonly the highest level of definition of plant interconnectedness. I
have never used a block flow diagram in professional practice—I often go straight to

An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design r 2015 Elsevier Inc.

All rights reserved. 255
256 An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs). I only do PFDs if I need them to

envisage mass flows, or a client asks for them.
This is symptomatic of the different levels of attention applied by professionals and
theorists. Having taught process design to many university lecturers, I know that it is
commonplace for the mediocre ones to think that all design problems below the level
of mathematical theory are trivial. Only the exceptional ones are willing to throw
themselves in to the point where they learn that the devil is in the detail.
There is a useful checklist in “Practical Process Engineering” to check for P&ID
completeness which will draw a beginner’s attention to frequently neglected issues,
which I have reproduced in Appendix 4.

Lack of consideration of design envelope

Universities are graduating students who have never considered anything beyond static
steady state design. Even Master’s level “Advanced Chemical Engineering” modules use
the simplified model so that they can spend longer on pinch analysis. This model is at
best a simplified one used for the newest beginners—this is not how design is done.
The design envelope considers all relevant aspects of a specific proposed site in
determining which approach is likely to be best. The regulatory environment, climate,
price of land, skills of available operators and construction companies, reliability of
power supply, risk of natural disasters, and proximity of people are often at least as
important as the theoretical yield of a process chemistry.
There is no right answer to design. The right design for a less developed country
will not be that for a more developed country. The right design for a client with a lot
of experience with a particular process will differ from that for another client.

Lack of consideration of construction, commissioning, and nonsteady

state operation
This is a subset of the above error. If your plant doesn’t work during commissioning and
maintenance it doesn’t work at all. Get it right—consider all stages of the plant’s life.
Principal maintenance activities to consider during design are isolation, release of
pressure, draining, and making safe by purge or ventilation. Remember to allow for
isolation of utilities as well. Purge lines should ideally be temporary to prevent back-
flow contaminating the reservoir.
Isolation, block, double-block, and double-block-and-bleed valves are used for
these duties, supplemented by spades, slip plates, and blinds.
If there is going to be hot maintenance (while the rest of the plant is working),
the layout must be suitable for this. Isolation of vessels must not isolate them from the
pressure relief system, though the possibility of connection to process via this route
needs to be considered.
Beginner’s Errors to Avoid 257

Parallel and series installation

Beginners seem to have little feel for the differences between parallel and series dupli-
cate installations, and when each is appropriate. They may, for example, think that the
headlosses of units in parallel are additive (they are not). The heuristic is: pumps in
series—add heads, pumps in parallel—add flows.

Lack of redundancy for key plant items

Standby capacity can be something of a mystery to beginners. Generally speaking, if
an instrument or item of rotating machinery is crucial to plant operation, you need at
least one full size standby unit. For economic or other practical reasons you may alter-
natively choose to have three 50% duty units instead of two 100% units (duty/assist/
standby versus duty/standby).
If the item is really crucial, you might want to make sure that a common cause
failure of the units cannot happen. So you might specify, at a minimum, separate
cabling all the way back to the motor control center (MCC) for electrically driven
items, or follow the example of the oil and gas industry in having steam-powered
backups for crucial electrically driven pumps.
It is not only unit operations which may need backup; utility failure can lead to
hazardous situations. We need to assess the required reliability and include standby as
required early on. Electrical power to crucial items usually requires twin feeds and/or
generator/battery backup. Note that generator/battery reliability and the yielded
length of trouble-free operation costs money, and that generator supplied power is not
necessarily as “clean” as mains power. It may be that “load shedding” needs to be
specified, such that only the most essential plant processes have power backup.
Emergency cooling or reactor dumping to quench tank may be used to bring the
plant to a safe and reliable stop rather than provide for continued operation in the
event of utility failure.

Lack of consideration of processes away from core process stream

Assume nothing. If the client has not told you that water, air, electricity, effluent treat-
ment, odor control, and so on are available free of charge and suitably rated for your
process, assume you need to provide them. If the client has told you they are, check
that you are happy with what is offered. Mark your P&ID with termination points
making clear where your scope begins and ends.
Storage often takes up more space, and presents more hazards than the main pro-
cess. Note that a few big tanks are probably cheaper than lots of small ones but the
consequences of failure are greater.
Designers need to consider emergency releases from the plant, allowing fenced off
out of bounds sterile areas for flares and vents, and adequate scrubbers for toxics.
258 An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

We need to make sure drainage systems are adequately designed. We need to avoid
pits which might collect heavier-than-air flammable vapors if leaks could produce
them, unless these are specifically designed impounding basins to allow leaking flam-
mable vapors to burn off without damaging other equipment.
Tanks should be contained in bunds with 110% of the largest tank volume being
the usual minimum allowance. We need to consider precipitation/firewater drainage
requirements when designing bunds. They may need covering or additional capacity.
Access (which does not breach the bund) to any equipment inside the bund also needs
to be provided.

Lack of consideration of price implications of choices

The best university level pricing techniques are greatly inferior to professional prac-
tice, and many things considered perfectly acceptable in academia are considered woe-
fully inadequate in professional practice. Making choices between technologies or
configurations without pricing them as well as you possibly can at that stage of design
is unprofessional. Don’t do it.

Academic “HAZOP”
There is a thing called HAZOP (or sometimes CHAZOP) by many in academia
which consists of reviewing a PFD using a version of the HAZOP procedure to
generate the required control loops. This is neither HAZOP nor CHAZOP, and
this is not how we determine how to instrument and control our plants. If you
don’t know how to do the basic control of your plant, look at Chapter 13, and/or
ask an experienced engineer. You’ll only be doing it their way come the design
review anyway.

Uncritical use of online resources

The internet is full of all kinds of potentially useful resources. I once asked one of my
students the source of some pricing data, and he said “Chinese Websites.” Without
getting as obsessed with proper referencing as my research colleagues, we do need to
put a little more thought into the reliability of any internet resources we use.
There are all kinds of online calculators for sizing pipework, equipment, and so
on. There are sites which advertise chemicals and equipment for sale. Some of these
are good (such as, e.g., lmnoeng for fluid flow calculations), and some are very
Professional engineers do not offer printouts of stuff from the internet as a substi-
tute for their own calculations based in reliable information. I have, however, been
known to use lmnoeng and the like, as a quick check that I have any novel hydraulic
calculations about right if there isn’t a second engineer available to check me. I don’t
Beginner’s Errors to Avoid 259

assume I have it wrong if the website disagrees, but if it agrees with me, I am happy
to assume my calculations are about right.
Professional judgment is what engineers get paid for. Don’t do anything without
exercising it.


Lack of knowledge of pump types and characteristics
There are two main kinds of pumps (rotodynamic and positive displacement), whose
characteristics were explained in an earlier chapter. There are many subtypes of pumps
which differ from each other in nontrivial ways.
The type of pump selected affects the way the pump needs to be controlled and
protected, the precision of pumping, the suitability for a given fluid in terms of its vis-
cosity and solids content, the power utilization for a given duty, the maintenance
requirements, and so on.
Until beginner designers apply the knowledge of pump characteristics outlined in
the Tables 10.3 and 10.4, they will consistently make schoolboy errors in the selection
of pumps and surrounding systems.

Attempting to control positive displacement pump output with a valve

This is one of the knock-on effects of the broad class of errors covered in the last sec-
tion, and one of the commonest errors of those with little design experience (which I
have seen in supposedly bright young engineers applying for chartership).
Do not attempt to control the output of a positive displacement pump with an in-
line throttling valve—this does not work and will damage the pump.

Multiple pumps per line

There is nothing at all wrong with having multiple pumps in parallel as an assist or
standby arrangement, but pumps in series are usually an error. Pumps in series, espe-
cially multiple positive displacement pumps in series, are not a feature of professional
Professionals know that we can get multiple stages of centrifugal pump in a single
unit if we want higher delivery head, and if you can’t get a pump to do your duty,
you are probably looking at the wrong kind of pump.
We also know that multiple positive displacement pumps in series do not work, as
we are throttling suction or delivery when they pump out of synch.

Lack of knowledge of valve types and characteristics

There are essentially three broad classes of valve duties, as outlined in the earlier sec-
tion: isolating, on/off, and modulating control valves. Different industries use different
260 An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

valve types for these duties, but all industries have these requirements. All designs
should reflect this understanding. Table 10.5 is intended to help beginners to under-
stand more about what is available. Actuated valves should be considered as rotating
machinery—if crucial to the process, standby capacity is required.

Lack of knowledge of actuator types

As outlined previously, there are three broad kinds of actuators. Note that pneumatic
actuators require compressed air and additional control equipment (solenoid valves to
control airlines) to function.

Throttled suctions
Don’t try to control the output of a pump by throttling the suction, so as to avoid
cavitation, among other things.

Use of actuated bypass valves

Back when I was in university it was common to control the output of a positive dis-
placement pump with an actuated valve in a bypass to suction. It does at least sort of
work, but times have moved on, and we use inverters now. I never used this tech-
nique to control centrifugal pumps even back then.

Use of control valves

I personally don’t make a lot of use of in-line control valves for liquids nowadays at
all. While this is personal preference, the greater power efficiency of inverters is a fact.
In the United Kingdom there are tax breaks for using inverters because of this.

Multiple valves per line

In university, they might have taught you a clever way of using multiple valves in the
same line with different lags to control flow based on multiple variables, but I would
recommend that you don’t try it in practice unless there is absolutely no other way of
achieving your aim. KISS. Try to control flow in a line only once. In any case most of
the multiple valves per line I see in beginner’s designs are not sophisticated cascade
control, they are simply errors.

Lack of tank drains and vents/other valves necessary for commissioning

A word of warning—don’t upset the commissioning engineer. Commissioning engi-
neers want to be able to drain tanks down in a reasonable time—say 30 min. Make it
so. Air will need to come in to replace the fluid—be sure to include a vac/vent or
other valve to allow this.
Beginner’s Errors to Avoid 261

Think about the commissioning operation—additional valves may be needed to

commission unit operations in isolation, or add services needed during commission-
ing. Put them in.
If you are unsure about what commissioning engineers need, ask them. If you do,
exercise professional judgment and be prepared not to add absolutely everything they
ask for. They are not employed to care about whether the company gets the job.

Lack of consideration of details of drainage systems

Badly designed drainage systems can be the cause of very serious problems—they can
allow the build-up of hazardous material from leaking equipment though undersizing
or lack of provision for removal of solids build-up, allow incompatible materials to
mix, carry toxic gases, fire or explosions from one section of the plant to another.
They are nontrivial.

Lack of sample points

Commissioning engineers will also berate you for omitting the valves they need to
take samples while commissioning. As with all the things which upset commissioning
engineers, operating staff won’t thank you either. Think about where you will need
to take a sample to test whether a unit operation is working. Put a sampling valve in
there, or a more complex arrangement if containment is an issue.

Lack of isolation valves

Every unit operation needs at least one isolation valve on every inlet and outlet.
Include it.

Lack of safety valves

Nonreturn valves, pressure relief valves, pressure sustaining valves, etc.: if you haven’t
included them you haven’t really considered all that can happen on the plant. More
experienced engineers will hopefully add what you have omitted, but why not save
them the trouble?

Lack of redundancy for key valves

Key actuated valves may well need actuated standby valves, and all actuated valves on
units which are not themselves entirely duplicated are likely to need a bypass with iso-
lation and a manual standby control valve for maintenance in service.


The law of the hammer (if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail)
operates if you know too little about your options.
262 An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

Universities seem to concentrate on a small selection of unit operations important

in the petrochemical industry. All chemical engineering students tend to see scrub-
bing, stripping, distillation, and drying several times during their course. The other
99% of unit operations are a mystery to them.
This book attempts in some of the tables in Chapters 10 and 11 to address the
issue of lack of knowledge of separation processes and so on. More generally, new
designers need to discuss the things they are doing with more experienced engineers,
so that they at least get a chance to know what they do not know.


My students used to know about two materials of construction, which they used for
everything—carbon steel and stainless steel (they usually weren’t sure which grade).
There is rather more choice than that, as Table 10.1 shows.

Make sure all utilities are included at earliest stages, for example cooling water, nitro-
gen, and refrigeration as well as steam, process water, electricity, and compressed air.
If you are handling highly flammable materials, one way to make them safe is to
exclude oxygen from vessel headspaces with inert gas. Nitrogen is cheapest, though
sometimes more exotic gases are required. You need to make and/or store this on site.

2D layout
Beginners to plant layout consistently fail to think in three dimensions—they lay pipe-
work and plant out on the floor in plain view in a way which renders it a dense series
of trip hazards, instead of fixing it to the walls or grouping in pipe racks and bridges
like real engineers.

Lack of room and equipment for commissioning and maintenance

This is the layout version of steady state design myopia. Detailed consideration needs
to be given by the designer to how the plant will be accessed during commissioning
and maintenance activities. The safety implications of this make it a high priority.
Beginner’s Errors to Avoid 263

Lack of control rooms and MCCs

As mentioned previously, new designers may be unaware that we need MCCs to control
the plant, and that we normally put these in a control room. The control room size
needs to take into account the direction from which the panel is accessed for mainte-
nance, the direction the cables come in from, and be big enough for safe access with the
MCC doors open. There will also normally be a table with a PC on for system control
and data acquisition (SCADA), room for filing cabinets for paperwork, etc.

Lack of redundancy for key instruments and safety switches
Beginners tend to miss out key instruments entirely, and slightly more experienced
engineers can fail to allow for standby capacity for safety or process critical instrumen-
tation. Such standby provision needs to be balanced against the need for simplicity.

Lack of isolation for instruments

Instruments need maintenance and replacement. Unless you only propose to do this
with the entire plant shut down and drained, isolation valves are recommended to
allow removal and replacement when the plant is running.

Measuring things because you can, rather than because you need to
Don’t measure things you can’t control. It will only cost you money, and it might
upset you needlessly.

Alarm overload
Consider the number of alarms you are generating—don’t overload operators with more
alarms than they can take in. This will make the plant less, rather than more, safe.
264 An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

P&ID notation
We mostly control plants with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or distributed
control system (DCS) systems nowadays, so P&IDs should usually not show control
loops as if they were wall-mounted proportional, integral, differential (PID) control-
lers as shown in Figure 17.1:





Figure 17.1 P&ID notation.

Sandler, H.J., Luckiewicz, E.T., 1987. Practical Process Engineering: A Working Approach to Plant
Design. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.